Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Voices That Matter

By Andrew Wintner

I recently had the privilege of presenting my research at the NCTE conference in Washington DC. First, let me make the generic claim that participating in events such as these; whether as a presenter or as an audience member is revitalizing. In my last post I touched upon the idea of the "teaching profession", while at NCTE teaching felt like a profession that people wanted to study and master. During our day to day as teachers it is easy to get bogged down and forget about the mission that drew us into the profession; educating children to the best of our ability. Being at these events reminds the individual teacher that they are apart of something meaningful and powerful, an ideal that is easy to lose.

While at the conference we saw a variety of presentations lead by a variety of presenters. All of the work was incredibly impressive and informative. Moreover, all of the presentations that I attended over the course of the weekend had clear universal implications. What was fascinating was the way in which different presenters, from different walks of the educational world, formulated their studies. Most graduate students / PHD candidates focused the collection of their data through quantitative measures, using clear metrics to compare student growth in a targeted area through the use of pre / post assessments; while many teachers triangulated qualitative data.

The contrast was stark, and the epiphany fleeting, but during these presentations it was clear that regardless of how data was collected and analyzed, the implications for the classrooms were the same. Rather it seemed that the most impressive implications stemmed from qualitative data; motivational words from student interviews, beautiful quips collected through written reflection and amazing growth in student affect towards varied skills left an impact much more lasting than t-tests that showed 99% significance.

The realization was pertinent; the last two years of teaching has allowed me to begin to view myself as a teacher researcher. However, I was so worried with designing the perfect design to track all data points that I lost sight of what was most important, the student. I was so worried about making sure that all data points had a pre and post assessment that it seemed like half the amount of time I spent with my focus group was dedicated to gathering data. Basically, I was not acting as a teacher researcher, I was acting as a researcher and while that has its benefits it is not the end all and be all. This is an important notion to internalize; important research in the classroom does not need to be entrenched in numbers and statistics.

There have been so many instances in which I wanted to study student motivation, or the impact of heterogenous grouping alternating with homogenous grouping every other day or the correlation between stamina and student affect towards a task, but I never studied any of the things that were of great interest in me because I could not wrap my head around how the design would look.

I am not making the claim that you should not triangulate your data or that your work does not need to based on prior research (mainly because a certain professor would kill me), however I am very clearly stating that you need to study what you think is important and will move student learning forward. If the design is not perfect, or the data collected is qualitative instead of quantitative, who cares, don't lose sight of why we want to engage in this work in the first place; to increase student learning. There are plenty of other times when we can let bureaucracy guide or pedagogy, but don't let that transcend into the research you conduct in your classroom because that research is so uniquely your own and so imperative to the profession of teaching and in turn student learning.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Profession Under Fire? Or a Much Needed Call for Improvement?

By, Andrew Wintner

The Direction of the Teaching Profession?

As many of you know the recent cover of Time magazine calls the ‘profession’ of teaching into question; directly blaming teachers and the structure of tenure / unionization for the “downfall” of public education. This cover has created nothing short of a nation wide debate within educational circles; one side protecting the unionization of the profession and the rights of individual teachers; the other calling for accountability, high standards and transparency that are synonymous with new teacher evaluation systems, namely The Danielson Framework.

As the common core states, one important standard for a writer to understand and master is a knowledge  of the format and intended audience of a written piece (yeah I just made a CCSS reference). With that in mind I am very aware that this is a blog and I will not at all try and hide my opinions. In most aspects of life I am very liberal and open minded; I believe deeply in the need for protection of workers and in a freedom for teachers to address the diverse needs of individual students, which in many instances requires them to deviate from the robotic norm that some consider to be successful teaching. However, I am afraid that often the protection of teachers that are not pushing the profession forward minimizes the innovation and problem solving needed to maximize the potential of teaching and transform it from a job into a profession. Lackluster teachers spread a sense of complacency; in order to fight this sentiment, education must stop viewing itself as a job and rather invest in its capital as a profession by creating intellectual space for professionals to grow their craft and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Programs like Literacy Teachers Initiative (LTI) create this space, however one does not need to be a part of an organization to engage in this type of work.

Why is this Relevant?
Why would this generic argument find its place within a blog dedicated to teacher researchers; the answer is simple; teachers need to band together to push the profession forward. We should invite accountability and transparency, not in a negative light, but in a light that draws attention to the intellectual and innovative work that transpires within the walls of schools countrywide. We need to call attention to teachers who not only fight complacency, but research and reflect upon their own practice to create new norms and push peers forward. Illuminating; this aspect of teaching will draw intelligent and dedicated teachers; and then keep them within the realm. Previous entries in this blog have chronicled how to create a research question and follow through with its implementation, I want to take a step back and illuminate the importance of this type of work on education; the “Why should I implement these practices in my own practice?” question.

For the better part of a decade I have watched my peer group in other disciplines climb up pay scales, move to corner offices and receive accolades for their efforts. For the first half of my teaching career I was incredibly envious; not of their accomplishments, but rather of the recognition. I was jealous they were in professions that documented and pushed innovation. It was not until I became part of LTI that I realized the same community is available within teaching, one just needs to search the appropriate outlets to find it.

Ever since delving into the world of research within my classroom I have felt rejuvenated in my practice as an educator. Namely, I feel like a professional in a career; a huge change in my discourse as before I viewed myself as a proponent of social justice that found himself in the classroom (noble intentions, but not the right mindset to really affect change), teaching was just a job to me. Being a teacher researcher pushes my thinking, forces me to be uncomfortable and live in that ambiguity in order to create something uniquely mine that will promote the learning of students. This type of work fights stagnant practice by creating an environment that celebrates intelligence and nurtures the growth of it. By no means do I consider myself intelligent (and if you are still reading this blog you can testify to my idiocracy through the incoherent nature of this article) however by engrossing myself in the world of research I was able to create a niche that engaged my intellectual curiosity.

Teaching is perpetually in the proverbial spotlight, but in my estimation this is a critical time for the ‘profession’ and if you are reading this blog that means that you are invested at some fundamental level in its success. Therefore, I am urging you to apply for a grant, to write a research article, to submit a piece to chalktalk, write a proposal to speak at a conference or call a friend and discuss the implications of the findings of an article that dissects the importance of heterogeneous grouping in ESL classrooms . These actions will renew your faith in your job if you are feeling lost or burnt out as I once was, it will help you transform your practice into a profession. Even if that seems too cliche don’t embark on this process for yourself, embark on this process because you believe in education and you understand the incredible need for the profession to be viewed as one that promotes and grows intellectual curiosity. You understand that the smartest people in our society do not need to make loads of money, rather they need to feel challenged and successful within their craft. These outlets allow for that, therefore we need to ensure that our community; moreover our profession as a whole begins to take this work seriously. It just may be the thing that transforms teaching from a job into a profession.

Guest Teacher: Andrew Wintner

Andrew Wintner is a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher and Literacy Coach at Fahari Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, NY. He is now in his 7th year of teaching and has taught 5th - 8th grade in the Bronx and Harlem. He recently completed his Literacy Specialist Masters degree at Teachers College, Columbia University. Andrew joined the LTI Project in fall, 2013.